Friday, December 10, 2010

Mr. President: Prove you weren't bluffing on Middle East peace

By snubbing the Obama administration's latest peace gambit, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done more than simply renege on an agreement with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Netanyahu has called President Obama's bluff. Netanyahu is telling the president: I don't take you seriously and I don't believe there will be any consequences.

This is a crucial test for President Obama. Obama came into office promising to deliver peace. He defined peace, correctly, as a U.S. national security interest. He said he would hold both sides accountable for their actions. 
It is now up to the president to prove he wasn't bluffing.

If he fails this test, the implications are global. U.S. allies and adversaries are watching. So far, they see a U.S. president who for two years has been unable to achieve significant progress towards one of his key foreign policy objectives. They see a president who directly connected his Middle East foreign policy to U.S. national security interests, but then, faced with game-playing and delay tactics of the parties, has behaved as if the U.S. was politically impotent. Obama needs to recognize that after two years in office, good intentions and powerful speeches count for nothing; he has exhausted the goodwill and the benefit-of-the-doubt he enjoyed when he first entered office. Today his foreign policy is being judged solely on actions and results. 

If Obama fails this test, the conclusions that will be drawn -- in Tehran or Pyongyang, when negotiating over their nuclear programs, or in Moscow, when negotiating over arms control, or even Paris and London when considering NATO interests -- are worrying. Their potential impacts are far more devastating for U.S. national security than the WikiLeaks fiasco. The credibility of Obama's entire foreign policy is at stake.
With the current crisis in the Israeli-Arab arena, Obama today has an opportunity to turn his peace policy around -- to change course and start matching his policy to his rhetoric. The simple reality is this: Obama can deliver an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, but only if the parties start taking him seriously. And at this point, that won't happen unless Obama makes clear that he is out of patience and ready to play hardball -- that there will be consequences for obstructing U.S. foreign policy and undermining U.S. interests. 
Let no one be deceived: There is no single magic formula for moving forward. Any "Plan B" will be as spectacularly unsuccessful as "Plan A" has been if the President fails to muster the political will to compel the parties to take him seriously. Whether we're talking about the U.S. laying down its own parameters, offering its own peace plan, engaging European and regional allies to build multilateral pressure on the parties, or some other option, the success or failure of the policy will lay first and foremost in the President's readiness to bring pressure to bear and hold the parties accountable.
That said, some ideas being bandied about are simply not options -- like adopting a "management" approach to the conflict. There is no "managing" a conflict that, with each new development on the ground, has the potential to inflame and destabilize the region and beyond.  
Likewise, there is no option of putting this policy in "park", awaiting more propitious circumstances. The two-state solution -- the only viable solution to this conflict and a solution that is vital both to Israel's survival and to U.S. national security interests -- is under daily attack. The absence of a credible peace process leaves the door open to violence, emboldening those who advocate the use of force over negotiations. It permits developments that are antithetical to the two-state solution. With these threats left unchecked, the two-state solution will not survive indefinitely. 
And let's be clear: while a settlement freeze need not be a precondition for peace negotiations, settlements still matter. Settlement construction creates new facts on the ground that make a two-state solution harder to implement, it discredits any peace process, and it sends a signal that Israel is not interested in resolving the conflict through negotiations, but prefers instead unilateral faits accomplis.
Finally, if President Obama acts with determination, he can ensure that Prime Minister Netanyahu -- who is today being praised for calling Obama's bluff -- faces his own test. For two years Netanyahu has blithely mouthed the rhetoric of peace and the two-state solution, but his actions have exposed his lies. With a resolute policy, Obama can demonstrate to Israelis that Netanyahu is taking Israel down a road that leads only to further collisions with Israel's best friend, the U.S., and to further isolation and de-legitimization. At that point, Netanyahu can either get with the program or face what is sure to be a wave of domestic opposition.
It is time for President Obama to get serious about Middle East peace, for the sake of U.S. national security and for the sake of the credibility of his foreign policy worldwide. The world is watching and waiting. And still hoping.
Lara Friedman is director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now.
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